sat 22/06/2024

War Requiem, English National Opera review - a striking spectacle, but oddly unmoving | reviews, news & interviews

War Requiem, English National Opera review - a striking spectacle, but oddly unmoving

War Requiem, English National Opera review - a striking spectacle, but oddly unmoving

A sober and dignified production fails to add value to Britten's score

Drop, drop slow tears: Emma Bell as the soprano soloist in Britten's War RequiemRichard Hubert Smith

We’re not good at lack these days. Just look at the concert hall, where increasingly you turn up to find not just an orchestra and soloists but a giant screen. Videos, projections, live speakers, "virtual choirs"; if there’s so much as a chink of an opening in the music, you can bet that someone will try and fill it. It seems to come from a place of generosity, a desire to reach out, to supplement, to amplify, to explain, just in case we didn’t feel or see or understand before.

But it’s also a gesture that takes away our agency as an audience, turns us spongy, limp as listeners.

English National Opera’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem may be the work’s first full staging in the UK, but it’s part of this larger trend. The lineage of Daniel Kramer’s show is clear, growing out of Passion stagings by Jonathan Miller, Peter Sellars and Katie Mitchell, Claus Guth’s Messiah, Calixto Bieito’s Verdi and War Requiems, and Derek Jarman’s 1989 film adaptation of the latter.War Requiem, English National OperaYou can see the temptation. And in the case of the Britten, the precedent is right there in a work that takes the Requiem Mass and interweaves it with poems by Wilfred Owen, that uses secular verses as contemporary windows onto an ancient sacred form. But where Britten collides his two worlds in order to open up space for doubt, uncertainty, questions – this staging uses an artistic collision to fill it up with statements and certainties. It’s dignified and often very beautiful, but I’m not sure that’s enough.

Kramer’s collaboration with Turner Prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans has been the headline of this production since it was announced. It’s an intriguing pairing and one that works well enough in practice. Tillman’s interest in visual polyphony, in multiple truths, distorted perspectives and points of view, makes him a natural fit for the material, and if both he and Kramer play it safe that’s probably preferable to the alternative.War Requiem, English National OperaGiant LED screens frame the stage – pages of a book that open up to reveal the living history they describe. Tillmans combines historical material – a 1920s anti-war publication full of horrifying photographs, an appeal for the victims of Srebrenica – with his own photos. There are angular shots of the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral and some gurning football rioters, but mostly what we see is nature: branches split open, their bark peeling off like flayed skin, sea-spume blowing along a beach like the froth of mustard-gas, the lumpen shapes of logs covered in moss, nature’s fallen bodies. The suggestions are delicately done, giving us both horror and its transformative redemption in a single image – a gesture that comes to a climactic head in a moment of snowfall. In that sudden flare of white we see both mushroom cloud and nature’s blessing, wedding veil and shroud.

Within, beneath and around these images the swollen ENO chorus move in massed patterns – now circling like prisoners in a yard, now lining up in military ranks, now gathering as mourners at a funeral. Kramer and Tillmans avoid any single narrative in favour of a series of animated tableaux. Sometimes these engage and intersect with the text – the “Quam olim Abrahae” is paired with a dumbshow of the story of Abraham and Isaac – but more often they don’t. Owen’s startling image of soldiers passing a wayside crucifix in “At A Calvary Near the Ancre”, hailing Christ as one of their own, is one of many passed over.War Requiem, English National OperaVisually mesmerising, the production is rarely moving, except in the eyes and faces of its performers. Soloists Roderick Williams and David Butt Philip (pictured above) spar and sport and kill with horrifying conviction, cradling their trauma with a lieder-singer’s gentleness and care. Williams is unsurpassed in this music, totally at ease in its melodic rhetoric, and if Butt Philip has to work harder to contain his increasingly powerful instrument in Britten’s fluting, Pears-inspired phrases, the result is edgily beautiful.

No consoling angel, Emma Bell’s soprano soloist (pictured below with David Butt Philip) is something rougher and more human. Wandering the stage wildly like a street-evangelist, she finds the howl and the shriek hidden beneath Britten’s phrases, and her Lacrimosa overflows warm and thick, like a basin of blood.War Requiem, English National OperaMartyn Brabbins gives the stage action plenty of room in an account that’s spacious but never baggy, though the pit means we’re sadly denied the spatial separation of the chamber orchestra. The Finchley Children’s Music Group sing with admirable clarity, accuracy and the crispest of enunciation.

It all adds up to quite a spectacle and experience. But among so much doing, so much stimulation and statement, such a clamour of images, it’s easy to forget to feel. I’m with Edward Thomas on this one. Sometimes “the meaning is in the waiting”. Or the silence. Or the absence.

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